John’s Horror Corner: The Conjuring (2013), a nearly perfect, instant classic horror with amazing characters and direction
MY CALL: Poltergeist (1982) meets The Exorcist (1973) in this modern horror classic that only fails to meet perfection because its predecessors already claimed the title by pioneering the scenes and atmosphere that form modern horror filmmaking dogma as we know it today. But James Wan kicks up the competition and demonstrates his mastery of storytelling and character development in a genre that normally relies entirely on atmosphere and gore-slathered effects to fill seats. IF YOU LIKE THIS THEN WATCH: Poltergeist (1982), in case you missed it. Also, anything from my series The Best Horror Came from the 80s or the upcoming The Best Horror Came from the 70s–back when horror actually came with a story and characters worth watching. SIDEBAR: Mark (not a major fan of horror) also wrote a very positive review of The Conjuring and offered an overview of director James Wan’s impressive work.
Let’s just start by saying that this wasn’t just a great horror movie. This was a solid film and a horror movie based on a true account of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s case with the Perron family in the 1970s. There were loads of scares and—while, yes, they were often “jump scares”—the creepy tension-building on the approach was finely crafted. You would know that “something” was about to happen and it was going to be scary, but it would still manage to catch you off guard, and you wouldn’t feel that the scare was “cheap.” Already this film has rightly stepped away from the last several dozen theatrical horror releases by engaging viewers with more than just funny satirical demons and loud noises masquerading as scary things.
Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as Lorraine and Ed Warren
Director James Wan’s (Insidious, Saw) film is consistent and smart, feeding viewers a steady and even diet of story and character development for both our haunted family and the paranormal investigators. Instead of taking the first twenty minutes to introduce us to the characters and hope that we invest ourselves enough to care when their lives are threatened, Wan piece by piece reveals the nature of the Perron family, their house and the paranormalists who come to their aid.
Roger (Ron Livingston; Office Space) and Carolyn Perron (Lily Taylor; The Haunting, Hemlock Grove) have just moved their five daughters into a secluded house in Rhode Island and, as we’ve come to expect in horror movies, all horror movie houses come with a dark past. Upon realizing that their troubles eclipsed the simplicity of a sleepwalking daughter and the stress of adapting to a new home, the Perrons seek help from Ed (Patrick Wilson; The Watchmen, Insidious) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga; Source Code, Safe House), two married paranormal researchers with an impressive résumé when it comes to purging evil.
The big success in storytelling and direction here is that because Wan presented the Warrens to us in the opening scenes–to set the tone and show us how these paranormal investigators work–and fairly alternated between their college lecture circuit and the escalating situation in the Perron house before the two couples had met. We weren’t force fed some ghost hunters halfway through the movie (or later) who we are “supposed to like.” Instead, we’ve already met them and learned that they’re not some spirit hunting hacks who “hope” to find ghosts and get evidence so they can be taken seriously. They hope there “aren’t” ghosts, they’re not in it for the money or fame, and they just want to help people (with an understandably fearful reluctance) utilizing their strange gifts.
Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as Lorraine and Ed Warren
A VERY evil music box
Score one for character development and great direction in a horror film, James Wan!
Following in the obvious footsteps of Poltergeist (1982) and The Exorcist (1973), we are met with some very familiar scenes. However, I felt this was a respectful nod executed with a succinct sense of urgency rather than simply riding coattails and milking past horror axioms for all they’re worth. The Conjuring skips most of the “are they just nuts” skepticism that would normally dominate the first half of a movie like this and gets right to dealing with the problem in a surprisingly practical manner. As a result, most horror moviegoers’ maddening frustrations are avoided in this film; no one does anything dumb or too perfectly right, the characters develop to protect their own and don’t turn into sudden superhero evil-slaying experts over night, they don’t walk into any traps when they should’ve known better, there are no ridiculous “Antichrist baby-Hell on Earth-chosen one-omen-gypsy curse-ancient relic-house built over sacred burial ground and angering the spirits” reasons justifying the spirit or what it wants or why it chose them, and they even address why the Perron family doesn’t leave the damned house and if it would make a difference at all if they did. All of this is done with simple explanation and for good reasons.
Score for the writers! By the way, the same writers (the Hayes brothers) will be doing the already announced sequel The Conjuring 2!!! However I have not found anything indicating Wan’s involvement.
As we slowly relax our muscles between creepy tension, scares, “wait is there more?” and then the next creepy tension, we wade through some shocking imagery, disturbing shots, a little bit of brief gross stuff (but nothing truly gastro-intestinally gruesome and gore-slathered as we find in Tucker and Dale vs Evil, The Cabin in the Woods, Drag Me to Hell or Evil Dead) and eerie sounds. Then there’s the perfect–PERFECT–atmosphere that Wan spins. Only with this paramount atmosphere could a small child staring into her dark bedroom corner (as we view nothing but out of focus “black”) be as terrifying as the most horrible monster leaping from behind a corner drooling all manner of evil yuck.
As most horror is rushed and features a slapped together story-and-victims-sandwich as a vehicle to shock us with cringing brutality, creature make-up and buckets of rubber guts, Wan demonstrates a mature and tactful restraint which, contrary to most horror filmmakers’ training, is wildly successful and eclipses most horror of the last two decades! Even Wan’s shot transitions were thoughtfully discomforting and artistic.
The Conjuring is rated R rating but actually seems less scary and intense than Poltergeist (1982)–of course, Poltergeist was WAY scary and I’d keep the kids over 14 to watch it! I mean, it is scary–very scary. But the gore is by no means a highlight and I didn’t even notice the profanity (whatever there was). All I noticed was that I was never bored or “waiting” for something cool to happen. I was immersed and loved every minute of this modern classic horror.